Turnbull team’s 2016 report card: Winners, losers in whiffy sausage factory

The Australian

7 December 2016

Janet Albrechtsen

While parliament rose with smiles last week, we were reminded of Otto von Bismarck’s observation that “Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.” On that measure, watching the 45th parliament was like poking your head into a black pudding factory. If it wasn’t Labor’s political blood on the red and green carpet, it was bloody-nosed new senators dazzling us with foolhardy performances.

Speaking of performance, it’s time to check key performance indicators and hand out grades to the Prime Minister, his ministers and the government. A year ago, it was a case of so far so good — a year later Malcolm Turnbull ends 2016 with a solid B+ performance. The plus is for his enduringly positive attitude, a reminder that his predecessor preferred to complain about a recalcitrant Senate rather than negotiate with crossbenchers.

In the black pudding factory, Turnbull has proven to be a transactional pragmatist, working with whomever he can to pass into law: budget savings (more work is needed with the budget deficit at $37 billion), superannuation changes, measures to protect volunteer firefighters and, most recently, a backpacker tax, the registered organisations bill and the re-establishment of the Australian Building and Construction Commission. All that from a government that scraped through the July election, bled votes in the Senate to independents and faced off against a Labor Party determined to win the end of year wrecking ball award.

For all the differences between Turnbull and Tony Abbott, Turnbull stuck to the party’s position on a same-sex marriage plebiscite, even though it’s not his preferred position. So far, and let’s hope he keeps to it in 2017, he has respected party policy on climate change, too, even though that may not warm his climate convictions.

The PM has also been a steadfast and determined defender of a strong border protection policy in the face of hysterical demands for the country to return to a policy that was responsible for the deaths of more than 1000 people at sea.

On national security, while he may dine with some dubious Muslim leaders at Kirribilli, Turnbull has ensured our security agencies have the powers and laws they need to fight terrorism here and abroad.

Yet, for all the sensible steps in 2016, there was often a sense of Turnbull bouncing uncomfortably from one issue to the next, from overreacting to the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre saga to being dragged reluctantly to an inquiry into section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. For a bloke who has hardly excited the base of the Liberal Party, Turnbull should undertake genuine reform of 18C to demonstrate a genuine commitment to the values of freedom of expression that underpin his party and his country.

Turnbull’s B+ is due, in no small part, to the star performers in his government. Employment Minister Michaelia Cash is a brilliant media performer, able to articulate the government’s position on industrial relations, politely, firmly and with smiles galore. She is also a rare reminder of a Howard-era political warrior and deserves an A+ for her handling not just of her portfolio but her ability to negotiate with a fractious Senate.

Finance Minister Mathias Cormann is the same: a conviction politician who understands the demands of the media cycle and knows how to negotiate an acceptable, if not pure, outcome. Immigration Minister Peter Dutton deserves full marks for delivering in a difficult portfolio, speaking plainly and honestly about past policy failures, including those by his own party under Malcolm Fraser, and understanding that successful immigration depends on support of the community. His use of facts and reason to stare down reckless activists and their ABC cheer squad makes him a worthy and influential advocate for mainstream Australians.

Nudging close to an A, Social Services Minister Christian Porter and Human Services Minister Alan Tudge are steadily leading the country to a more sensible discussion on welfare, a necessary first step to reform in 2017 given that our welfare bill sits at $160 billion a year, or 80 per cent of all personal income tax collected. And Environment and Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg has done a stellar job arguing for energy security in a country that has an abundance of energy but also an abundance of reckless state Labor governments sacrificing energy security on the altar of green energy.

The Foreign Minister earns an A+. The articulate and classy Julie Bishop makes her job look effortless. Scott Morrison earned a B-. As immigration minister, Morrison performed well with the safety of a policy running rail to follow. As Treasurer, his record is patchier. On the policy front, he is responsible for undermining the stability of our superannuation system.

On the political front, he could do with a refresher course in the art of effective retail politics going by his tendency to get narky so often, even with Sky News’s fair-minded David Speers. Morrison seems to resent wasting time speaking to the people via the media.

Plenty of newcomers to parliament deserve good marks. Julian Leeser delivered an A-grade maiden speech, drawing attention to the darkness that befalls a family when a family member commits suicide. James Paterson and Tim Wilson have earned top marks for being Liberals and liberals, articulating classical liberal values, from the moral dignity that comes from work to the virtues of responsibility and freedom.

On that score, new Victorian senator Jane Hume should rethink her curious position as the only Liberal backbencher in the Senate who didn’t support bolstering free speech in this country. With responsibility for reforming MP entitlements, Victorian Scott Ryan earns a plodder’s C for going dreadfully quiet on entitlement reform at the top end. And it’s hard to give marks to Christopher Pyne or Marise Payne this year (though the out-of-her-depth Payne is certainly being carried by the capable Pyne) because we still haven’t worked out exactly who is responsible for what in defence.

And then there’s Abbott. The former prime minister who left office promising there would be “no wrecking, no undermining, no sniping” hasn’t met his own KPIs. Instead, he has earned the title as the partyroom’s most annoying member. Encouraging friends to go into print or in front of a camera to demand a cabinet spot — or else — is political ransom that shouldn’t be paid. It’s easy standing up for free speech as an MP after you caved to minority pressure as leader. And defending your legacy is better left to life after politics when time and distance may offer a calmer, more objective assessment. Abbott’s nonsensical Green Army policy, for example, is no legacy at all.

Though Abbott believes he is the choice standard-bearer of conservative politics, others better deserve that accolade. Sadly, Cory Bernardi gets marked down for wasting time at the UN, a body he has (rightly) bagged. Michael Sukkar, Angus Taylor and Andrew Hastie deserve special commendations for reminding us how the Liberal Party differs from the other side of politics.

If, in 2017, the Turnbull government can master that differentiation in areas from budget repair and economics to espousing mainstream values and rejecting political correctness, it will prove its purpose and earn the support of more Australian voters.